City of Newsprint: Pete Hamill’s Tabloid City

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How It’s New York: New York is the setting for the novel; Pete Hamill is the quintessential New Yorker.
How It’s Irish: Hamill is American-Irish, and his protagonist, Sam Briscoe, is half-Irish, half-Jewish, one of the famed Jirish.

Michelle Woods loves the vanishing world of print  in Pete Hamill’s Tabloid City, and Pete Hamill’s Jirish protagonist


...If you, like grizzly old me, get a frisson imagining typewriter-filled newsrooms with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell snapping at each like a two-finger typist on crack, then you’ll enjoy it….


I finished Pete Hamill’s Tabloid City the day that the British tabloid, The News of the World was suddenly shut down. At The News of the World, the journalists, gathered together, thinking their editor was going to tell them she was resigning,  were told that she was staying and the 200 of them were going.
The Murdochs cut off internet access in the newsroom (so no one would email or tweet – like there isn’t wifi?? And a bunch of investigative journalists who phone-tapped??) and paid for an open bar at a local pub.
The image of two hundred tabloid pissed (in the English and American meaning of the word) dirt-digging hacks using their opposable thumbs at the bar to get revenge electronically was the only bit of delight from it.
Hamill’s novel covers the last 24 hours of a New York tabloid when the young pasha (think James Murdoch), uninterested in antediluvian print news, decides it all needs to go digital. The paper will close. Meanwhile, a bomb has gone off and a bomb’s ticking and there’s a radicalized home-grown Islamic terrorist on the loose and anyone who’s anyone in New York is going to the nightclub, Aladdin’s Lamp.
Eek.
But forget the tick tock plot. The novel’s worth reading because it’s a love-letter to the print past. If you, like grizzly old me, get a frisson imagining typewriter-filled newsrooms with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell snapping at each like a two-finger typist on crack, then you’ll enjoy it.
I was with Hamill and his nostalgia and sour grapes at the digerati and the world it serves – the slug-like blogger, Freddie Wheeler, who recycles, oops – aggregates – news in the New Media, who are all just “waiting for verbs” instead of pounding the streets. Or, the virus spreaders of the filler word “like” and the apathy it conceals: “The Charge of the Like Brigade”:

“Voices balloons are rising over the city, some large, others tiny, hundreds of them, many millions of others just suggested, all saying likelikelikelikelikelikelikelikelikelike … One four letter word blurring the city’s soundtrack, part of the pasty verbal mush, and on the splash page it’s crowding the sky among the many towers.”

At the centre of the novel is the half-Irish, half-Jewish (Jirish!) old paperman, Sam Briscoe, whose book-filled loft provides some sanctuary from the oncoming tsunami of virtual infotainment, elegizes and captures a ghost-city of the past, kept flickering only in the memories of his colleagues, both dead and alive.
There’s some hope, too, in the future with an intrepid young reporter, Bobby Fonesca. Fonesca’s father has begged him to be anything but a newspaperman.
“I tried to explain to him, Dad, I don’t want to be rich, I don’t want to be famous, I want to be good. And he said, Why can’t you be good at something like banking?”
But the other son in the book, Malik Shahid, is looking for infamy, and Hamill suggests a tie between a world obsessed by fame and the urgent present with one of quick-fix infamy, even if it takes a bomb to be noticed by a world indifferent to you.
Of course, also suggested, is that our giant fears of bombs and attacks hide the real dangers munching away at the foundations. The death of literacy and knowledge, based on hard facts from foot-pounded streets, is the real act of terrorism. 
Reading Tabloid City is like heeding an orange alert.    
I feel a little safer.  But the danger is still there.
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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts